Does pork quality affect retail price? The answer is no, according to the retail portion of the Benchmarking Value in the Pork Supply Chain study.

Researchers examined retail products from the loin (enhanced and non-enhanced), ham (boneless) and belly to assess quality’s implications on retail prices and to determine losses due to pork-quality defects.

Researchers purchased packages of boneless loin chops, bacon and ham at 25 retail stores in eight major U.S. cities. They recorded the product brand name, weight, total price, price per pound and sell-by date.

All products were sorted and tested for quality — color, lean, marbling and texture. The hams also were tested for purge.

Loin chops, ham and bacon accounted for 14 percent of the average U.S. supermarket meat department from February through May 2002. (Total amount of pork products in retail meat cases is much larger.)

The study found color differences between low- and high-quality pork cuts at retail were evenly spread across the United States, but they are all priced the same. “If a producer is producing pork with extra palatability, he should be rewarded for it at retail,” says Keith Belk, animal scientist, Colorado State University. “But, there’s no possibility of that if prices don’t differ. There should be a target for marketing branded and premium products, while penalizing poor quality.”

Retail prices for loin chops don’t appear to reflect differences in quality or eating experience. Therefore, the researchers recommend that the industry move toward differentiating products based on color, marbling and palatability traits to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.

With pork, unlike other protein sources, notes Belk, processors can take a low-quality product, such as a ham, and add value back. “Pork is unique. The consumer isn’t footing the bill for product shortfalls, because the packer can work some of these out.” 

“In terms of palatability, there’s not much difference between the low-, medium- and high-priced products,” says Belk. “This shows the importance of branding.”

For example, a national brand of bacon is expensive and well received by consumers, but when researchers compared its attributes to others, there wasn’t much difference. “It takes money to build a brand, but there’s a reward,” he notes.

Other interesting results:

Across all retail stores visited, average meat-case displays consisted of 64.3 percent processed meats, 8 percent fresh poultry, 7.9 percent bacon, 6.8 percent fresh beef, 3.5 percent fresh pork, 2.6 percent heat-and-serve products, 2.4 percent ham products and 2.4 percent frozen poultry products.

  • In terms of diversity and marketing of pork, the cities differed significantly. For example, total retail space for pork in Houston averages 764 square meters, while Atlanta has 597 square meters and San Francisco has 403.
  • For ham-product space, Denver retailers average 19.5 square meters, with Atlanta retailers at 18 square meters and San Francisco at 6.6.
  • As for bacon, Houston was highest, allowing 55 square meters. San Francisco was lowest at 18.6.
  • In full-service case space dedicated specifically to pork, San Francisco had the least with 0.04 square meters,  Philadelphia had 0.38, while Chicago had 0.43.

The researchers say more studies are needed to identify ways to further improve pork quality and capture more value throughout the chain. This in turn will help the industry determine what drives American consumers’ decisions to purchase pork products.